Reflections on the Life and Works of J.R.R. Tolkien
By: Vanessa K. Eccles
The most basic writing advice writers ever receive is “write what you know,” but why is that so important? Behind all believable fiction, there is some true experience that the writer drew from his/her own emotions and thoughts. Master fiction writers take their own experiences and interweave them into their work; Tolkien was no exception. Tolkien’s interesting, full life inspired his epic novels. From culture, experiences, relationships, and memories, Tolkien’s life was weaved into the words of the epic fantasy The Lord of the Rings. To understand the depth of the novels, readers must peek into the mind and past of the great J.R.R. Tolkien.
Tolkien’s life and story began in Africa in 1892, near the end of the Victorian Period. His writing was greatly affected by post-Victorian Period thoughts. Victorian poets like Emily Bronte, Christina Rossetti, and Alfred Lord Tennyson centered their poetry around morality and teaching it to society. Tolkien grew up favoring a new approach to literature – Formalist. Formalist critics, according to Cleanth Brooks, believe, “That literature is not a surrogate for religion” (“The Formalist Critic”). Tolkien would have agreed. He did not think that morality needed to be taught in literature. He, specifically, did not want his work to be allegorical. He said, “As for any inner meaning or ‘message’, it has in the intention of the author none. It is neither allegorical or topical” (Fellowship of the Ring xiv). Literature was art for art’s sake. Understanding that a story is just a story is important when analyzing Tolkien’s work.
If readers were to properly analyze Tolkien’s work, they will study the life that inspired the writing. Tolkien’s father died when he was very young, but it’s his mother’s death that greatly affected him and may have lent some inspiration to his future work on The Lord of the Rings. Mable, his mother, died when he was only twelve. Mable developed diabetes and “while the disease involves a genetic disposition, research indicates an environmental trigger” (Horne 16). She and her sons were estranged from their family because of her devout belief in Catholicism. Tolkien would always vow that the isolation that she felt and the added stress to her already dire situation triggered her diabetes and eventual death. In a letter to Tolkien’s son, Michael, he writes, “she was a gifted lady of great beauty and wit, greatly stricken by God and grief and suffering, who died in youth of a disease hastened by persecution for her faith – died in a postman’s cottage at Rednal, and is buried at Bromsgrove” (Horne 17). The loss of his mother carved a deep scar on his heart. She was the first true model of womanhood in his life, and she would have greatly affected how he viewed women and how he portrayed them in his work. Understanding her motherly influence and perceived martyrdom, is important in comprehending Tolkien’s view of women.
Tolkien associated the English countryside with his departed mother, and this greatly contributed to his love for nature. Throughout the books, there is an apparent good in nature. Treebeard, the great Ent, says, “The woods were like the woods of Lothlorien, only thicker, stronger, younger. And the smell of the air! I used to spend a week just breathing” (The Two Towers 458). The sense of peace that Tolkien feels when surrounded by nature is apparent in his words. When Treebeard first encounters Merry and Pippin he says, “And I am doing the asking. You are in my country” (The Two Towers 453). This indicates Tolkien’s respect for nature. He is making a strong environmental argument through the Ents. Later, the Ents become pivotal in winning the battle over darkness. Tolkien’s love of nature evolved from his fond memories of his mother and reveals itself beautifully through the peaceful relationship between the hobbits and the Ents, and this knowledge helps nature play a more pivotal part in the readers’ minds while reading the novels.
Tolkien’s mother left her two sons to her priest, Father Morgan, and Tolkien and Father Morgan developed a strong relationship over the years. Horne says, “Tolkien was also truly respectful and loyal to him” (Horne 31). Their relationship mimics Bilbo and Frodo’s. Bilbo was the overseer/guardian of Frodo, just as Father Morgan was to the orphaned Tolkien. Father Morgan was the only father that Tolkien could remember, and his respect for him is similar to what a son has for a father. Father Morgan pushed Tolkien to continue his education and rid himself of distractions. He believed in Tolkien’s talent and helped him pursue an educational route that would both encourage and equip Tolkien’s dreams and interests. Without the fatherly tug that Father Morgan provided, Tolkien’s scholarly and creative pursuits may have been very different. The same goes for Frodo and Bilbo. If Bilbo had not raised Frodo with moral strength and integrity, Frodo may have never been able to save everyone from darkness. His weaknesses could have easily steered him in a different direction if it were not for the youthful guidance of his guardian, Bilbo. The love and respect that Bilbo and Frodo have for one another is apparent at their reunion at Rivendell. Bilbo’s excitement is obvious when he says, “Hullo, Frodo my lad! So you have got here at last. I hoped you would manage it” (The Fellowship of the Ring 224). Tolkien used his own relationship with Father Morgan to create the bond between Frodo and Bilbo, which offers additional insight to their relationships in the novel.
Other bonds in the books may have been inspired by the relationships Tolkien developed while attending the various clubs he was a part of during his school years and later life. Tolkien was made librarian his senior year, and he and his friend Christopher Wiseman started the informal Tea Club and Barrovian Society or T.C.B.S. at King Edward’s college. According to Mark Horne, the group of men “inspired one another to pursue their various interests” (Horne 34). Clubs were very important in Tolkien’s life. He thrived in an atmosphere of motivated, talented friends. He later became a part of the Inklings, along with C. S. Lewis. He even dedicated The Lord of the Rings to its members. These clubs are reminiscent of the Pre-Raphaelite Society in the Victorian Era. The writers of Pre-Raphaelite movement wanted the same thing that the groups that Tolkien was involved in wanted – to write something original and worth remembering. According to Horne, “The T.C.B.S. moral vision was to invite the world to a meal instead of preaching at them” (50). Tolkien needed the push, encouragement, and inspiration of fellow writers and friends to complete his masterpieces, and sympathizing with his great struggle can offer new appreciation for his works of art.
T.C.B.S. members kept Tolkien inspired and in pursuit of his dreams, even in WWI. The men kept contact with one another via letters during their stint of the war. Horne quotes a letter written in the early part of the war to Tolkien by member, G. B. Smith:
“He wanted Tolkien to be confident that, though death could destroy individuals, death could not dissolve the group…his ‘chief consolation,’ knowing that he might die, was that there would be someone else to survive ‘to voice I dreamed and what we agreed upon.’ He prayed God’s blessings on Tolkien if he should be the one to survive and ‘say the things I have tried to say long after I am not there to say them.’” (Horne 64-65)
Tolkien lost his friend, Smith, shortly after receiving this letter. After the war had ended, all of the T.C.B.S. members had died with the exception of Tolkien and Christopher Wiseman, but their creative spirits were alive in the mind of Tolkien. The ring in The Lord of the Rings is a symbol of the burden that Tolkien must have felt after realizing that it was left to him to write something that would preserve the memory and ideas of his fallen friends – to say the things they never had a chance to say and to write the stories they never had a chance to write. Their permanent memory was written on his heart and helped Tolkien find the path that led straight to his destiny. In being exposed to his wartime past, readers will see the ring as more of a layered symbol than if they had not known.
Fellowship and brotherhood is a recurring theme throughout The Lord of the Rings and throughout Tolkien’s life. As mentioned earlier, intellectual clubs were pivotal in Tolkien’s pursuit of writing, but so too was his experience in WWI. He experienced comradeship and friendship throughout wartime. These memories of war could have made a significant influence over his writing. In The Fellowship of the Ring, before Frodo and his friends approach Farmer Maggot’s place, they hear a call/signal. The narrator says:
“No more was said about it. They were all thinking of the Riders, but no one spoke of them. They were now reluctant either to stay of to go on; but sooner or later they had got to get across the open country to the Ferry and it was best to go sooner and in daylight. In a few moments they had shouldered their packs and again were off.” (The Fellowship of the Ring 89)
The fear and imminent feeling of danger is what Tolkien would have undoubtedly experienced during his stint at war. He made many friends, and it would be safe to assume that they would have experienced fear together. The fellowship of the ring could have been Tolkien’s way of re-expressing the importance of his friendship with others during pivotal stages in his life which would greatly affect readers’ ideas of the fellowship.
Because of Tolkien’s strong bonds of fellowship leaving WWI was bitter-sweet. In Return of the King, Frodo bids adieu to all of his brothers in arms. The duty had been done, and their journey was over. When the hobbits were nearing Hobbiton, Merry says, “Well here we are, just the four of us that started out together. We have left all the rest behind, one after another. It seems almost like a dream that has slowly faded” (Return of the King 974). Saying good-bye was hard for everyone in the books, and no doubt was it even more so difficult for Tolkien to say farewell to his friends, especially the ones that had passed. Perhaps when Frodo leaves Sam, audiences get a clearer picture of the despair Tolkien would have felt at the death of his friends. The narrator says:
“But to Sam the evening deepened to darkness as he stood at the Haven; and as he looked at the grey sea he saw only a shadow on the waters that was soon lost in the west. There still he stood far into the night, hearing only the sigh and murmurs of the waves on the shores of Middle-Earth, and the sound of them sank deep into his heart.” (The Return of the King 1007)
When Sam returned home to Elanor and Rose, he was no doubt saddened by his loss of Frodo. Tolkien used his true emotional loss of friends in order to write believable and touching good-bye scenes that are even more endearing to readers after reading about his personal losses.
Many critics have complained about the heightened sense of brotherly love and the lack of true, emotional romance in the books, but Tolkien’s tales did not end nor begin with The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien, himself, lived a romantic story. He met his future wife, Edith, when he was only a teen, and she was three years his senior. Their love quickly blossomed and all was well until Tolkien started doing poorly in school and Father Morgan found out about Edith. Father Morgan blamed their romance for Tolkien’s poor academic status and banned him from seeing Edith again. Father Morgan told Tolkien that he wasn’t to have any contact with her until he turned twenty one years old. For three years, Tolkien did not see Edith nor talk to her with the exception of one letter. He did as Father Morgan requested, and focused on his studies. He excelled, but the day of his twenty-first birthday, he wrote Edith and asked her to marry him. He couldn’t wait for a response so he traveled to the town that she lived in and pleaded for her hand in person. She was already engaged to someone else, but her heart must have always belonged to Tolkien because she soon broke off her engagement and agreed to Tolkien’s proposal. Tolkien, being a devout Catholic, insisted on her immediate conversion. She, reluctantly, did so. But she struggled her entire life with fitting into a faith she never felt was her own. Tolkien realized that she had given up a lot marrying him, and this lent to the inspiration of Arwen and Aragorn and earlier The Hobbit’s Beren and Luthien. Tolkien said in a letter to his son after Edith’s death, “…Luthien, which says for me more than a multitude of words: for she was and knew she was my Luthien… she was the source of the story that in time became the chief pan of the Silmarillion” (Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien 340). Tolkien even had the name “Luthien” placed at the bottom Edith’s tombstone and the name “Beren” placed at the bottom of his. Tolkien did not feel the need to write the love story that he lived; he felt the need to write the friendships that he lost. Understanding the need Tolkien had in restoring (even in fiction) what he lost, helps readers grasp why he chose not to write much about romance.
Writers see the importance in passing along stories in hopes that they will never be lost; Tolkien was no different. Tolkien left his unfinished work to his son, Christopher, who has gone on to publish numerous pieces of his father’s and of his own. This is reminiscent of Bilbo, Frodo, and Sam. When Frodo met Bilbo in Rivendell, Bilbo said, “Don’t adventures ever have an end? I suppose not. Someone else always has to carry on the story” (The Fellowship of the Ring 226). Bilbo passes the unfinished book to Frodo which works on it until his final departure. In The Return of the King, the narrator says, “In the next day or two Frodo went through his papers and his writings with Sam, and he handed over his keys” (1003). In handing over his writings, Frodo is handing over his inheritance. He is asking Sam to continue carrying on the story. Frodo explains, “I have quite finished it, Sam…The last pages are for you” (The Return of the King 1004). The poetic life of a story resonates with Tolkien’s personal views. He passed his unfinished stories to his son who has done his best to carry on the tale of the hobbits, and knowing this helps readers see Tolkien’s poetic nature more clearly.
Tolkien’s life story, unfortunately but inevitably, came to an end on September 2, 1973. Much like Frodo in The Return of the King, Tolkien imagined a peace following death. The narrator says, “…the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise” (The Return of the King 1007). The words “silver glass,” “white shores,” “green country,” and “swift sunrise,” all bring a warm and welcoming tone into the hearts of readers. Tolkien was eighty-one when he died. There is no doubt that he knew his time was coming to an end, but that did not cause him heartache. Instead he longed for the restful West. In a poem that he wrote in 1966, he writes:
Guided by the Lonely Star
beyond the utmost harbour-bar,
I’ll find the heavens fair and free,
and beaches of the Starlit Sea.
Ship my ship! I seek the West,
and fields and mountains ever blest.
Farewell to Middle-earth at last.
I see the star above my mast. (“Bilbo’s Last Song”)
Tolkien’s life was riddled with loss, but his faith and his perseverance kept him optimistic and hopeful that all would end well. The last letter he ever wrote was to his daughter, Priscilla. The very last words were, “It is stuffy, sticky, and rainy here at present – but forecasts are more favorable” (Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien 354). No doubt that Tolkien was talking about the weather, but if he knew then that he would die four days later, his poetic soul may have still chosen to use those same words. Life is “stuffy,” and “sticky,” and sometimes dreary, but Tolkien knew that “forecasts are more favorable” if one’s hope rests in Heaven. Tolkien’s faith in the most favorable outcomes led him through a lifetime of loss, and turned his life into the ultimate fairy tale.
J.R.R. Tolkien never gave up his dream of writing an epic adult-fairy tale. In chasing that desire, he ended up writing the unforgettable The Lord of the Rings in memory of those he lost. All the while, he lived a life worthy of a fairy-tale writer. He loved his family and friends deeply, so deep that his heart for them inspired characters, scenes, and outcomes in his majestic works. He took relationships, struggles, and triumphs that he had experienced and wrote them in a way that would make lasting impressions for generations to come. It is unknown if future Tolkien family members will continue his work, but if Tolkien was here, he may agree with Bilbo. The story must go on, and the adventure continues.
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